A bid by the nominal Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to stage a comeback in Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, Osh, ended in fiasco on April 15 after he was forced to beat an ignominious retreat amid chaotic competing demonstrations.
Accompanied by his camouflage-clad brother Janysh, a group of armed guards and hundreds of supporters, a surprisingly composed Bakiyev made a brief appearance on the square in front of the Osh National Drama Theater. Police stood by, but did not intervene.
As Bakiyev tried to address the crowd from within a cordon of bodyguards, rock-throwing demonstrators from a rival protest moved in to prevent the ousted president from speaking. Bakiyev's bodyguards fired into the air, prompting people to panic and scatter. Many were mindful of the 83 deaths caused on April 7 in political violence that led Bakiyev to flee the capital, Bishkek, to his southern stronghold, Jalal-Abad. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
As anti-Bakiyev demonstrators pushed forward, a EurasiaNet.org reporter saw Bakiyev retreat to a waiting convoy of several black sport utility jeeps without license plates, and depart for an unknown destination. After his departure, supporters made a failed attempt to seize the local television and radio station in Osh.
A Bakiyev representative told EurasiaNet.org that Bakiyev has returned to his house in Teyit, a village on the outskirts of Jalal-Abad, 120 kilometers from Osh.
Many local people believe that the failed comeback has weakened Bakiyev's position and made a deal with the interim administration more likely, but the mood in Osh remains uncertain.
Calling for calm, interim government head Roza Otunbayeva called Bakiyev's Osh appearance an attempt to destabilize matters further, and expressed hope that "he will listen to the opinion of the international community and the people of Kyrgyzstan" and step down.
"For now, he's the president only of his own native village; and to be more exact, of those three courtyards where his relatives live," snipped the head of the interim government's administration, Edil Baisalov, in comments reported by AKI-Press.
Since his April 7 ouster, Bakiyev has based himself in a well-guarded mansion in Teyit, with approach roads manned by groups of supporters. The caretaker government has stripped him of his immunity from prosecution and said it will try to arrest him if he does not give himself up. Bakiyev has said he is willing to talk to the interim government and will consider resigning if his conditions, which include security guarantees for his family and him, are met.
After Bakiyev's departure from Osh, his supporters were adamant that they would not accept his arrest and would stand for nothing less than his re-installation as president.
"If they arrest him, the new [interim] government should also be arrested," Anar Orozbayeva, a middle aged woman from Kara-Suu district, told EurasiaNet.org. "For there to be peace, Bakiyev should just stay. He is not to blame for what happened in the square [in Bishkek, where demonstrators died]. The opposition is to blame because they kept organizing pickets."
"We love Bakiyev. We respect Bakiyev. ... We value Bakiyev's work," added Gulsara Abdurasulova, a nursery school teacher from Osh.
Bakiyev's attempt to address the rally in Osh came after activists supporting him disrupted a rival rally of thousands organized by the interim local authorities on the city's main square. After Bakiyev's attempt to speak was thwarted, pro-Bakiyev activists moved in to tear placards from people's hands. Scuffles ensued, with one young student holding a placard calling for peace beaten with a stick and thrown on the floor before her banner was destroyed.
Earlier, local officials, calling for peace and unity, had urged the crowd to rally behind the interim authorities. "We will not leave the path open to lawless people!" one speaker declared to applause.
The mood at the demonstration was decisively anti-Bakiyev. "They should arrest him, and they will, after what he's done," said Orazbek Maraimov as he watched the proceedings with a group of fellow unemployed middle-aged men who complained of poverty and joblessness.
Observers believe Bakiyev is seeking to shore up his position -- or at the very least create a more favorable negotiating position for himself -- by deliberately stoking tension in Kyrgyzstan's south. Some are voicing concerns that his standoff with the caretaker government in Bishkek could end in violence in the south or even split the country between its more liberal, urban north and its more conservative, rural south, which is Bakiyev's political heartland.
Even in the south, though, support for the ousted leader is decidedly patchy. "Bakiyev is just deeply mistaken that the south of the republic supports him. It's just a bluff," Bekmyrza Nyshanov, an unemployed Osh resident, told EurasiaNet. "He wants to divide [Kyrgyzstan] into north and south. I have two brothers in Bishkek -- what, are we going to fight each other?"
The unrest in Osh came after tension in Jalal-Abad on April 14 as Bakiyev's supporters and opponents organized competing rallies. Insults were exchanged and scuffles broke out between the opposing sides as they tried to hold rallies on the main square.
A handful of police officers guarding the nearby regional administration building looked on helplessly. Asked by EurasiaNet.org what they would do in the event of a clash, one young police officer shrugged resignedly. "I don't know," he said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.